The call he had been waiting for had finally come. And not a moment too late as far as Ryder was concerned. The prince was awake, and more importantly he was lucid. The worst of his fever had left him, his temperature taking a drastic drop from the high hundred it had previously been. The prince felt recovered enough to start asking for Allura, and was rumored to be pouting that the nurse didn’t immediately leave to fulfill his request.
Ryder’s spirits had lifted to hear that, taking it as proof that the prince was well on his way to a full recovery. He hurried through the ship’s corridors, and just the look in his eyes was enough to get the other Drules talking. It wouldn’t be long before the news spread, the people’s mood turning from somber to elated. And all because Lotor was returned to them, having escaped death’s grasp a second time.
When he entered the cabin, he could hear Lotor’s voice coming from the bedroom. It had hoarse quality to it, his tone not as strong sounding as it normally was. But it was apparent he was alert, and more than a little annoyed by the fuss the doctor and the nurse were showing him.
“I feel fine.” Lotor was insisting as Ryder opened the bedroom door. “There’s no need for any of this. The best medicine for me will be a quick shower and a chance to be alone with Allura…”
The doctor insisted on preparing an injection anyway, one to bolster Lotor’s system. The nurse, meanwhile, was encouraging the prince to drink a tall glass of water. An encouragement Lotor was ignoring, even when the doctor sighed and pointed out the prince had become badly dehydrated from these last three and a half days of suffering. Ryder hid a smile, knowing water was among the least favorite of things the prince preferred to drink. He had to be feeling better if he was so intent on giving the nurse a hard time.
“Do get on with it then…” Lotor sighed as though the doctor’s attempts was a great burden on him. When Ryder let the door click close, it drew the prince’s attention to him, Lotor looking that way with a hopeful smile. It turned down at the corners when he realized it wasn’t Allura who had come to visit him. Ryder couldn’t resist teasing him, trying not to laugh as he spoke.
“I know I’m not as pretty a sight as the princess, but really! Do I deserve such a depressed look? And after I ran all the way here?!”
Lotor managed a sheepish look that faded to exasperation as the nurse insistently pressed the cup to his lips. He shooed her off with his hands, but looked at Ryder as he spoke. “Sorry Ryder. Just was…hoping for someone else.” The nurse sighed, and looked to the doctor for help. “Where is Allura?” Lotor wanted to know, then let out a surprised yelp when the needle was injected into him.
Ryder nearly laughed at the sound Lotor had made, but somehow managed to refrain from teasing him about it. “Allura is fine.” Ryder was quick to assure him. “She’s mingling with the crew…getting to know more about them…..and about you.”
“Yes.” Ryder nodded. “I thought it might change her out look of you if she got to hear some of the stories of you during your better behavior…” He saw Lotor was uncomfortable with that, and quickly hurried to reassure him. “Don’t worry so. No one will mention anything about Zarkon or his treatment of you. The others know to keep quiet about that…even if not all agree with it.” The last he muttered, but Lotor heard it all the same.
“I don’t want her pitying me.”
“I know you don’t. But maybe pity is not what she’d feel if she learned the whole story.” Ryder watched as the doctor began to pack his bag, the man seeming disgruntled by his patient’s bedside manner. “It’s a risk I know…but we don’t know how she will react for certain.”
“It’s precisely why I don’t want to chance it.” Lotor retorted. “If there’s a chance, even a slight one that she’ll take to pitying me…” He shuddered as though it was a fate worse than death. “There are worse things than her pity…”
“Such as?” prodded Ryder when it became apparent Lotor wasn’t going to finish that thought.
Lotor seemed hesitant to answer, the prince turning grateful at the interruption the doctor offered. “You’re not completely in the clear just yet.” He said. “I am advising you remain in bed for the remainder of our trip.” A tightlipped smile from the doctor. “I know I won’t be able to get you to adhere to it any longer once we reach planet Simestia.”
“Damn straight you won’t!” Lotor grumbled. No one laughed in response. The prince’s health was simply too serious a matter.
“You have to be careful, your highness.” Continued the Doctor. “You need adequate rest. You weren’t fully recovered the last time when you insisted on taking the lead of the mission. You nearly paid the price for your stubbornness.”
Lotor seemed properly chastised by those words. “I understand doctor.”
“I am going to be closely monitoring what you eat for the next few days.” The Doctor told him. “I’ll be sure to have the cooks prepare you only meals rich in nutrients, foods that will help boost your body to a swift recovery.” He took on a stern look, actually daring to wag a finger at the prince. “That means no sneaking behind my back, and no wine!”
“No wine?!” Lotor exclaimed, aghast at the thought. “Then what am I supposed to drink?!”
“Water.” The doctor almost smiled at Lotor’s groan. “Juice. Anything but the usual booze and beer you prefer.” Lotor grumbled something inaudible under his breath as the doctor turned to Ryder. “Call me if there’s any change, no matter how small it may seem.”
“Of course doctor.” Ryder reassured him.
“Come along Qualenn.” The doctor urged the nurse to follow him, the pretty female putting down the glass with a sigh. The prince had yet to take even one sip of the liquid despite the nurse’s best urgings. Ryder wondered if Lotor would have given Allura as hard a time, but quickly dismissed that thought when he realized the princess was more apt to throw the water in Lotor’s face than anything else.
Lotor waited until the door in the cabin’s outer room slammed shut, before attempting to get out of bed. “Whoa there!” Ryder exclaimed, hurrying forward to stop him. “Are you sure you should be up so soon?!”
“I need a shower…” Lotor seemed a little unsteady on his feet, actually holding onto Ryder’s arms for support. “I don’t want to stink of sweat and medicine when I see Allura.”
“There’s no rush.” Ryder argued. “Allura’s not going anywhere…” Much as the princess might wish otherwise.
“There’s every reason to rush!” protested Lotor. “Ryder, I’ve wasted DAYS in that bed.”
“It couldn’t be helped, you were sick….”
“Regardless, that was time better spent elsewhere.” He sighed, and allowed Ryder to force him to sit back on the bed. “I had plans for that time Ryder. I wanted to work with Allura, to help her get over her fear of me. To help her become used to idea of the two of us being together. Not as my captive, but in the way of a man with his wife…”
“Somehow I don’t think a few days would have been enough for that.” Ryder murmured, thinking now of Allura’s behavior with the other Drules.
“It would have been a start though.” Lotor told him. “I had hopes that by the time we arrive at the mansion, she’d be….”
“You hope for a miracle if you think she’d be willing in just a few days time!” interrupted Ryder.
“Maybe. But maybe she wouldn’t have fought against the thought of us so badly.” Lotor smiled, but it lacked humor to it. “I’ve been told I am very charming.”
“Somehow I don’t think your charm is enough to get the princess to fall into bed with you that fast.” Ryder noted how Lotor seemed to deflate at that thought. “At least not from what I’ve seen…”
“Oh?” Lotor turned curious. “What have you seen?”
“Well, for one thing, she wasn’t exactly thrilled when you collapsed on top of her!” Lotor’s brow furrowed, the prince trying to remember. “It appears you were in the midst of pinning her to your bed, when the fever got to be too much for you.”
“I did that…? I don’t remember…”
“Oh yeah, I saw it with my own eyes. She was thoroughly pinned beneath you. All that soft flesh pressed against yours.” He couldn’t resist teasing Lotor, the prince looking more and more upset that he couldn’t remember that moment. He reached out to pat Lotor’s shoulder. “It’s probably a good thing you can’t remember. She was pretty upset by it all…”
“Was she worried about me? Even just a little?” Lotor asked, tone hopeful.
“Couldn’t’ say for sure.” Ryder lied. “She’s got so many concerns…the least of all being the embassy situation.”
“Have we gotten any word on that?” Lotor asked, and Ryder nodded.
“Yeah, it’s been all over the airwaves. There was a shoot out at the embassy…many people died, but not nearly enough on the Alliance’s side. Your father will be pissed that his plan failed….” Lotor shivered at that, surely imagining what his father would have done to him in retaliation for that failure. “At best, only one or two key members of the Alliance were killed before the rest were rushed to safety. The deaths on their side was mainly the embassy soldiers that attempted to protect them.”
“I see.” Lotor said, slowly processing this. “Allura must have been relieved to hear that.”
“Haven’t told her yet.” Ryder watched the surprise blossom in Lotor’s eyes. “I thought you should be the one to tell her about it.” Lotor nodded in response. But Ryder didn’t smile. “There’s more…”
“Yes. The replacement Haggar picked out was found among the bodies of the dead Drules.” Lotor seemed to tense up in anticipation. “Congratulations your highness. According to the rest of the galaxy, you’re officially a dead man.”
“Good.” Lotor sighed in relief. “No one will come looking for me now…not when they think I’ve already died.”
“Ah…about that…” Ryder hated to ruin Lotor’s moment of relief. But there was things he had to know, concerns he had to address. “The Alliance still hasn’t released the bodies to the Empire…Haggar is close to panicking.” And with good reason. They had left it up to Haggar to dispose of the body, to burn up the remains before anyone could closely examine the replacement and discover the deception she had wrought with her magic. As it stood now, the bodies were in the Alliance’s hands, refused burial rights as the two factions argued over their dead.
“Your father is livid over this.” Added Ryder, and Lotor snorted.
“He’s only sorry he didn’t get to kill me himself.”
“That’s probably true. But it still presents a problem. If the Alliance discovers the necklace…if they remove it from your replacement, you know what will happen. The illusion will fade, they’ll know it wasn’t you that died at the embassy.” Ryder tried to keep his tone even, but some urgency slipped in regardless.
Lotor sighed, and made a face. “So we’re pressed for time….” He grimaced. “I don’t suppose we can just skip over planet Simestia and go straight to the next galaxy?”
“No can do.” Ryder retorted. “Even if this ship was equipped to travel that far, we still don’t have the paperwork in place for our new lives. ”
Lotor swore. “Damn. How much longer will that hold us up?”
“Couldn’t really tell you.” Hedged Ryder, walking the tight rope between truth and lie. And all because the Drules didn’t want Lotor to leave the Denubian Galaxy. Nor did they want him to turn his back on the Empire and his throne. They were making plans behind Lotor’s back, gathering allies and accumulating armies and the wealth needed to maintain such a large group of soldiers. And all with the intent to do in Zarkon, and place Lotor on the throne in his place.
Haggar was working behind the scenes, keeping a close watch on Zarkon. She would forge many of the alliances Lotor would need to take the throne from his father, the witch gaining for the prince the political and financial backing needed for such a coup. It was up to Ryder and the Drules that traveled with Lotor, to somehow convince him not to turn his back on everything.
Right now Ryder didn’t have one damn idea on how to accomplish that. The best thing he and the others had come up with was to lie to the prince, to cause delay after delay once they reached planet Simestia. The hope was Lotor would be too distracted with Allura to become properly suspicious of what they were doing but there was always the risk of being found out.
Ryder even harbored hope that through Lotor’s association with Allura, he would come to be healed. To understand that what had been done to him wasn’t his fault. That maybe Lotor would come to feel something other than shame, something like anger that would motivate him to face his father. Face him and win, taking the throne, and ending Zarkon’s miserable life.
Ryder knew that Lotor was strong. Perhaps stronger than the prince gave himself credit for. He had seen what a capable leader Lotor could make during their years that passed after their graduation from the Drule Academy. He was smart, quick on feet, and decisive. He commanded respect and loyalty from those who worked under him. He should have been flourishing in his life. Instead he had been brought low by his father, the man quick to insult and even quicker to physically beat the prince. Zarkon had been tearing Lotor’s confidence down for years, ever since he was a little boy.
The only years Lotor had been free of Zarkon’s abuse was the years he had spent at the Drule Military Academy, and a scant three years after. Those three years had been spent on the outskirts of the Denubian Galaxy, fighting Doom’s wars. Winning them. Lotor’s track record had been excellent until it came time to deal with Arus, and then everything had began to fall apart.
Ryder felt Arus, and more importantly Voltron, would not be a problem for Lotor and Doom any longer. Not when they had the princess as their prisoner. With Mara playing at pretending to be Allura, she would be able to search out any weaknesses among the Voltron Force. She’d use those weaknesses against them, turn the Voltron Force against each other if she could. If all went according to plan, the Arusians would never discover the deception until after it was too late. Lotor would make his miraculous return, claim the Empire from his father, and take Allura for his bride.
There was much to do, many things to calculate, plans to fall into place. They didn’t have the luxury of time, not with the Alliance hanging onto what they thought was the prince’s body. It was one thing no one, not even Haggar had anticipated, and it put everything into jeopardy. Ryder had expected to have at least a few months to work on Lotor, now he feared they didn’t even have a few days.
Lotor was frowning, though he couldn’t have had a clue as to what Ryder was currently thinking. Ryder once again reached to pat his shoulder, forcing a smile. “It takes time to create new identities and lives for as many Drules as we have brought with us. You don’t want to rush this Lotor…not when the smallest of slip ups could reveal the truth of who you and Allura are…”
“You’re right.” Agreed Lotor, shrugging off Ryder’s hand. “I suppose I can wait if it means securing a safe future for us all.” He rose up off the bed, and this time was
more steady on his feet. “Go…bring Allura here…I need to see her.”
“Need and want aren’t the same thing and you know it.”
“Ryder…” Lotor growled in annoyance.
“Okay, okay. I’ll go get her.” Surrendered Ryder with a laugh. “You go freshen up in the meantime.” He stayed long enough to make sure Lotor really was steady on his feet, Ryder not wanting the prince to collapse the minute his back was turned. But it became apparent the prince was fine, if a little slow moving.
Leaving the cabin, Ryder would head straight to one of the ship’s few recreational areas. It was there, under the watchful eye of Vorlac, that he had left Allura. The princess had been suffering from what the humans called cabin fever, the girl sick of hiding in her room. My room, Ryder quickly corrected, wondering if now that Lotor was recovered if he’d be able to reclaim the room for his own use.
He’d very much like that, sure to appreciate the room far more than the princess had ever. She hadn’t even had the courtesy to thank him, seeing the room as nothing more than a fancier type of prison.
Grumbling to himself about the princesses lack of good manners, he entered the recreational room. It was comfortable sort of room, with plenty of couches and chairs spread throughout. Cushions were ever where, and not just on the furniture. They lay in piles on the floor for those who were more comfortable laying then sitting. Some gaming tables were set up, with a wide assortment of different types of games to be played. There was even a large holo unit in one corner, where movies were played at regular intervals.
But the holo wasn’t turned on at this point, even though Allura and several Drules sat stationed before it. Instead they were talking, Allura listening with an intent look on her face. Ryder drifted closer, catching Vorlac’s eye. The gray skinned Drule lifted a scaled eyebrow in question, and Ryder gave a slight nod in response. Vorlac seemed to relax instantly, the corners of his mouth turning up in a smile.
No one noticed the change in Vorlac. The group with Allura was too focused on telling her their stories. Those tales of how they had met the prince, how they had become friends. Or why they owed such loyalty to a man Allura had called a monster. Ryder didn’t know if it was having any effect on Allura, but ever since the day before, in the ship’s chapel, she had been meeting with the Drules that were willing to talk about so personal a thing with her.
Right now a woman was talking. Although she was colored several hues of red and rust brown, her looks closely resembled Vorlac’s type of Drule. Her eyes were blinking rapidly, the woman trying not to cry as she spoke in a low tone. She was telling the princess of her situation back on Doom, of a time some months ago when it had been just her and her father left to struggle to survive.
“My father had been a soldier for the Empire…” The female continued. “He was a good man, decorated with high honors for his various accomplishments in service to Doom.”
Ryder already knew the story, knew how the father had been badly injured in a fight with Voltron. His ship had been destroyed when the Arusian’s defender had torn it apart with it’s hands. The woman’s father had just barely managed to evacuate in an escape pod, but stray bits of flaming rubble had slammed into the vessel. It had knocked the pod off course, the Drules inside crashing into a forest. It had been a tough impact, many sustaining multiple injuries including the woman’s father. But she spoke without accusation, simply stating it as fact that Voltron had inadvertently caused her father’s injuries.
“He was no longer able to serve in the military.’ The woman continued. “He was left paralyzed from the waist down…for all that he had accomplished, all the medals he had earned, it didn’t make a difference when it came to procuring work for him. He was just one of many in a similar situation, unable to fight, unable to find meaningful work on our home world. We couldn’t have afforded to move even if we wanted to…”
The Drule female paused to brush at her eyes, her expression growing increasingly upset. “My father sank into an ever deepening depression…we had to sell off all his medals just to put food on our plates…” Her shoulders began to shake, and one man reached over to touch her hand in a show of support. “I began to seriously consider selling my body in order to bring income to the family…When my father found out what I was thinking of doing, he was furious. But more than that, he felt helpless. He…he…”
Her voice broke on a sob, Allura leaning forward, eyes intent on the Drule female. “What did he do?”
“He was a proud man…he couldn’t bear the thought of his daughter being brought so low by the situation he felt was his fault.” She shuddered. “I should have never left him alone. He still had his guns…he used one on himself, tried to fry his brain with lasers.”
“Tried to?” Allura asked, and the woman nodded.
“Perhaps it was some act of the Gods….if he had used a higher setting, if his aim had been more true, he would have been dead.” She sniffled then looked embarrassed at the sound she had made. “Instead he was merely brain damaged…In one act of desperation he had sealed both our fates. I would have to sell myself to afford care for my father.”
Allura didn’t look like she understood where this story was going. The woman had broken down into tears, surely reliving the pain of the moment she had come home and found her father laying on the floor.
“It was Prince Lotor who saved Tamestra from a life in the brothel.” Ryder spoke now, drawing everyone’s attention to him. “The prince had learned, almost too late, of what had befallen the soldier and his family.” Ryder did not smile, looking more frustrated than anything. “Records aren’t always kept as detailed as we’d like, people get lost in the shuffle….Lotor actively seeks to help those veterans of the war, those who fought the good fight only to have Doom turn their back on them.”
“He’s established trust funds for them…” added Vorlac. “Out of his own private fortunes at times. He’s strong armed many a noble into contributing money for the veterans as well…”
“Why would he do that?” Allura wondered out loud.
“You should ask yourself more why he would not.” Countered Ryder.
“Princess…” Tamestra had recovered enough to seize Allura’s hands, gripping them tightly. “The prince made sure my father was well taken care of until the day he died. But more than that, he took care of me too. He found me employment, and not just me. Whole families that would have ended up on the streets if not for the princes’ intervention…”
“One of the downsides to an empire run so heavily on slave power is there aren’t as many jobs available to the free folks.” Vorlac explained. “It’s either go into the military or end up starving on the streets.”
“Doesn’t that tell you that what the Empire does is wrong then?” demanded Allura, struggling to extract her hands from Tamersta’s grip. “Why doesn’t anyone fight against it? Why does your people not rebel against their leaders?”
“Rebellion is never an easy course.” Ryder told her. “It doesn’t put food on the rebel’s plates, and doesn’t help pay for their needs. Unlike a job in the Empire’s military…”
“Change won’t come as long as you stick to what is easy!” Allura retorted. “You have to fight for it…make sacrifices…” She fell back against the cushions when Tamestra abruptly let go of her hands.
“We’re working to do just that.” She said. “We’re working in our own ways…trying to…”
“That’s enough Tamerstra!” Ryder snapped out, voice sharp. She lowered her eyes with apparent guilt, and looked away from Allura.
“Trying to what?” Allura wanted to know, but Ryder made the attempt to distract her from this line of questioning.
“The prince has awakened.” An unreadable look flickered in the princess’ eyes. Ryder couldn’t tell if that was fear, or even relief she had briefly expressed. “He’s asking to see you…”
“To see me?” Now her look was wary. “What for?”
“It was not my place to inquire.” Ryder retorted. “Will you come?”
“Do I even have a choice” She asked.
“No.” He told her, and saw her face flush with anger. “You may have gotten away with not visiting the prince for these past few days, but no longer. It’s time you accept that you will be spending much time in his presence…”
Allura grumbled something unintelligible under her breath. Vorlac pulled Allura to her feet when it became apparent she wasn’t going to move. “Are you so cold, so impassive as not to be affected by what you’ve heard from these people?” Ryder demanded once they were out in the hall.
Allura lifted her gaze to his, blue eyes defiant, words bold. “It’s sad stories these people tell me. But even a lifetime of good won’t make up for the evil Lotor and the Empire have done, let alone the few nice acts he does out of some twisted expression of guilt.”
“You think you know everything…” Ryder hissed. “But you’re too blinded by your own hatred and fears to truly understand what goes on around you!” He stalked forward at that, leaving the princess to gasp and gape behind him. He was angry, but more than that he was disappointed. He wondered if anything could possible move the princess’ heart towards seeing Lotor in a different light, into not turning this whole adventure into nothing more than more heartache and misery for the prince.